The ‘better out than in’ free speech argument

2012-11-10

in Law, Politics, Writing

In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie describes the debate in the U.K. about whether to censor a film called International Gorillay which depicts a group of terrorists seeking to kill a character named Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie the author wrote to the BBC pledging that he would not sue them for libel if they showed the film. In his memoir, Rushdie calls the experience: “an object lesson in the importance of the ‘better out than in’ free speech argument – that it was better to allow even the most reprehensible speech than to sweep it under the carpet, better to publicly contest and perhaps deride what was loathsome than to give it the glamour of taboo, and that, for the most part, people could be trusted to tell the good from the bad. If International Gorillay had been banned, it would have become the hottest of hot videos and in the parlors of Bradford and Whitechapel young Muslim men would have gathered behind closed drapes to rejoice in the frying of the apostate. Out in the open, subjected to the judgment of the market, it shrivelled like a vampire in sunlight, and was gone.”

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

alena November 10, 2012 at 8:23 pm

It takes courage to do what Salman Rushdie did. So many people are in favor of freedom of speech as long as it does not criticize them or their favorite group or belief. Still, it is hard to know where to draw the line.

. January 9, 2017 at 8:13 pm

The Netherlands is far from the only democracy to criminalise “hate speech” that denigrates racial, religious or other groups. Such laws have widespread support, but they are misguided. Free speech is the oxygen of democracy—without it, all other political freedoms are diminished. So the right to free expression should be almost absolute. Bans on child pornography and the leaking of military secrets are reasonable. So, too, are bans on the deliberate incitement of violence. But such prohibitions should be narrowly drawn.

Standing outside a mosque shouting, “Let’s kill the Muslims!” qualifies. Complaining that your country has admitted too many migrants of a particular nationality does not. People should be free to debate immigration policy. Advocates of a liberal approach, such as this newspaper, should try to persuade those who disagree with them, not lock them up.

Proponents of hate-speech laws argue that they foster social harmony by forcing people to be more polite to each other. The opposite is more likely to be true. Criminalising something as subjective as the giving of offence encourages more people to say they are offended, so they can use the law to suppress views they dislike. This enrages those who are silenced; hardly a recipe for social tranquillity.

Such laws also provide an excuse for autocrats to censor their critics. China uses laws against inciting ethnic hatred to trample on Tibetans who demand autonomy. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan anti-blasphemy laws are used to terrorise minorities and settle private scores. In all these cases censorious governments cite similarly worded Western laws as precedents. Enough. Governments should stop trying to police politeness. It stifles debate and helps bigots like Mr Wilders.

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